Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

The fight for paid internships at the United Nations

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By Sarah Ben-Moussa

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Scattered shoes are displayed at the steps of the United Nations Headquarters in New York as a show of solidarity with interns and young people who are underrepresented around the world. Credit: Sarah Ben-Moussa

On Nov. 10, 2015, a group of unpaid interns, led by the Fair Internship Initiative (FII), demonstrated outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in recognition of International Interns Day. As a protest against the United Nations practice of hiring unpaid interns, the group staged a flash mob.

Attendance was uncertain, given the reports of rain for that day, but in the end, approximately 20 interns gathered outside, umbrellas in hand, in front of a row of scattered shoes. They each held signs that collectively spelled out “unpaid is unseen,” a phrase that has been gaining traction in the international intern sphere. In an interview with Alessandro Greppi, an organizer with FII, he explained that the phrase alludes to the lack of representation at the U.N. of young people in developing countries who cannot afford individually to finance an unpaid internship, and whose home states cannot afford to send them. The image of scattered pairs of shoes, similarly, was meant to symbolize all of the young people that were unable to represent themselves.

After the gathering, the interns made their way into the General Assembly building, where they were allegedly stopped by security, who asked them to put away their signs, as protesting is prohibited inside the U.N. itself. Vice News reported that two security guards from the U.N.’s Emergency Response Unit also demanded that the pictures taken by Vice be deleted.

Later that evening, FII hosted a panel on youth employment featuring Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth; Bettina Hasel, Human Resources Specialist in the UNICEF New Talent Team; Elizabeth Niland, Social Affairs Officer of U.N. Focal Point on Youth; Ian Richards, President of Staff Unions and Associations; and several other representatives and consultants. The panel covered the issue of remuneration for interns, but also focused heavily on other reforms for interns, including reforming the de-centralized nature of internships within the U.N. and the possibility of a scholarship fund for candidates unable to pay their way through the program. Protests against unpaid internships and programs such as these have gained more attention over the past year.

THE RISE OF INTERNATIONAL PROTESTS

The practice of unpaid internships has invigorated protests since news of David Hyde, a 22-year-old intern living in a tent in Geneva this summer, made international headlines. The story was later found to be staged, in an effort to create a documentary on the struggle of unpaid interns. But, many have claimed that the reality is not far off, with demonstrations on International Interns Day taking place around the world in cities such as Geneva, New York, Melbourne, Paris, Chennai, Brussels and Trento. Students and interns have mobilized all over, arguing that unpaid internships at the U.N. go against the very values of the U.N., including non-discrimination and equality.

One of the organizations borne out of the global movement is the Fair Interns Initiative. It started as a weekly meeting of interns, and has quickly gained traction since the summer of 2015, with as many as 30-40 interns attending weekly events In an effort to clarify their demands, the FII specifies in its mission statement that they are seeking needs-based allowances or stipends for interns who are not funded by their university or another institution, fair and equal representation of interns and an intern focal point in the Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM). Their main focus is on securing these policy changes at the United Nations, given its prominence in the international field. They hope an organization such as the United Nations can set a precedent, which many other organizations can follow.

In the meantime, as long as internships remain unpaid, FII said they wish to see a change in the visa granted to interns so they at least may seek part-time work in supporting themselves in their host country, as well as a possibility for basic health insurance provided by the U.N. However, their long-term goal remains the eventual remuneration of interns.

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“Unfair, unpaid, is unseen” has become a mantra among the movement for the remuneration of interns, invoking the notion of equal work for equal pay, as well as contesting the representation bias present in many international organizations. Interns gathered outside of the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva Switzerland, to protest the U.N. practice of unpaid internships. Photo courtesy of ILO Intern Board.

VIOLATING U.N. LAWS AND PRINCIPLES

In an interview with FII, Greppi said that the U.N. is failing to uphold the principle of non-discrimination, as articulated in the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR). There is a stark disparity in representation in the U.N. internship program, with most interns hailing from Europe, according to a 2015 report by the Secretary General. By offering only unpaid internships, the U.N. has created a de-facto restriction to internships, limiting access to those who can afford to do unpaid work or are lucky enough to secure outside funding, which tends to be individuals who are either from more affluent or developed nations.

Aside from violating the principle of non-discrimination, FII argues that the unpaid internship program violates the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Specifically, FII wrote in a joint letter to Secretary Ban-Ki Moon on Aug. 14, 2015 that the program violates Article 8 of the U.N. Charter, which states that, “the United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.” They argue that the U.N. internship policy places an “indirect restriction” on qualified young people, creating a structural barrier for many. Additionally, they also cite Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “[e]veryone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work” and that “everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” Thus, the exclusion of interns under this umbrella is a direct violation of the UDHR, FII said.

In response to the letter and its arguments, the Office of the Secretary General issued a response, explaining that the conditions of service fall into the purview of the General Assembly, and that any change to this policy would require a vote of the majority of the General Assembly.

BALANCING LEARNING WITH COMPENSATION 

Despite the backlash against unpaid internships, many have touted the benefits of these experiences. For one thing, there is a tangible benefit gained in experience and connections made through internships, a hiring practice that has existed for several decades. A letter from the U.N. Office of the Secretary-General in response to FII highlighted the fact that while there is no financial compensation, the internship program was designed to enhance the educational experience of interns and allow students to interact with other professionals and interns. The value of first-hand experience in an organization is one that should not be understated.

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Scattered shoes are meant to represent the many young people who are unable to represent themselves, says FII. Photo courtesy of ILO Interns Board.

However, in a world where organizations and companies are increasingly relying on unpaid interns to simply get work done, unpaid internships can be exploitative. They can displace paid employees, have interns performing menial tasks and not be beneficial in the employment search process. In the U.S., the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explored how unpaid internships at for-profit companies could be regulated in the landmark ruling, Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures. The court ruled that unpaid internships are legal so long as the interns are the “primary beneficiary.” Among the factors to be considered in making this evaluation, the court highlighted that companies should consider the extent to which internships are tied to an intern’s formal education, the receipt of formal credit and if interns’ work complements or displaces paid employees’ work. Although this ruling may pose a set of problems (i.e. overlooking type of work and overall educational status) and it only applies to the for-profit sector, the legality of unpaid internships in the United States could serve as a standard or starting point for the U.N. and international community, especially in the wake of recent international unrest over unpaid internships, and increasing pressure on member states in the General Assembly to act.

Within the context of the U.N., most internships are offered to those who have obtained or are currently pursuing graduate degrees. While many gain a benefit from the learning experience offered by the U.N., it is often outweighed by the inability of interns to transition out of the intern sphere. Specifically, many interns, both in the U.N. and in other spheres, are facing a barrier to enter the workforce through the existence of what many have deemed to be “perpetual internships,” exchanging one internship for another, often without financial compensation, well beyond an affordable amount of time. With recent budget cuts to U.N. staff, it is even more unlikely that the U.N. will be expanding its entry-level recruitment. In fact, in light of these staff cuts, and without a central regulating mechanism for its internship program, it calls into questions the amount of work interns are expected to complete, and where the line between a learning experience and entry-level type work begins. Further complicating the transition is the fact the U.N. has a six-month hiring freeze, preventing interns from being hired for at least six months after they complete their internship, a practice FII is pushing to eliminate.

Many have argued that unlike multi-million dollar companies, the U.N. does not have the financial resources to pay its interns. While the idea that the U.N. is strapped for resources is not a new one, the inherent problem is the organization’s willingness to paint internship remuneration as a frivolous expense, rather than just compensation for labor. The United Nations, especially in the light of its recent staff cuts, thrives on its internship program, employing over 4,000 interns worldwide. Just compensation for labor should be the U.N.’s first priority.

CHANGES FOR A MODERN JOB MARKET

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In honor of International Interns Day, the ILO Interns Board, in conjunction with the Geneva Interns Association, held a panel discussion on the issue of unpaid internships at the International Labor Organization Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of ILO Interns Board.

A modern jobs market needs a modern approach to internship programs. The United Nations, and many other organizations, needs to fundamentally restructure their internship practices in order to keep pace with the changing job market and the needs of young professionals. It must shift from its practice of ad-hoc unpaid internships, to a far more regulated and centralized paid program, to prevent abuses in the program and to obtain the greatest benefit for both parties.

In reality, this shift may lead to a drastic decrease in the number of interns the organization is able to employ, both due to monetary concerns but also due to the legal difficulty in moving so many young professionals to new countries for such short and frequent periods of time. Paid internships means fewer internships, and fewer internships means more competition. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The benefit imposed from creating a more competitive environment for interns ensures the most talented young professionals are being drawn to the organization, a long-term value that the organization has not calculated into their analysis. Additionally, opening the doors to increased representation of developing countries gives a value to the organization, both in perspective and in legitimacy.

The legality of unpaid internships continues to be a hot button topic both within the borders of the United States and in the larger international sphere. The United Nations is at a crucial juncture—its stance on the nature of unpaid internships sets the tone for many states. As an example of the principles and norms in the international community, they bear a responsibility in setting precedent like no other organization. The choice on what to do with that responsibility is in their hands.

Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Header Photo Credit: Sarah Ben-Moussa

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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